Thursday, April 15, 2021

Santiago (1956)

Santiago is a 1956 Warner Brothers adventure movie starring Alan Ladd. It has a pretty poor reputation. Whether it’s really that bad remains to be seen.

The movie is set in 1898 with the Cuban revolution against the Spanish providing the historical background. Cash Adams (Ladd) is a former US Army officer who was dishonourably discharged. He now makes his living as a gun runner. He’s being paid to deliver a consignment of guns to Tampa where Cuban revolutionaries will be waiting with $100,000 for him.

The job is much more complicated than he expected. Firstly he and his men are attacked by hijackers before they even reach Tampa and then he discovers that the deal has been changed - he has to deliver the guns all the way to Cuba. The Cubans do agree to double his price which is some consolation.

The guns have to be loaded on board an old paddle-wheel riverboat which will take them (along with Cash Adams and his confederates) to Haiti, then on to Cuba.

I don’t claim to know much about nautical matters but I have to say that the riverboat really doesn’t look like it would last five minutes in the open sea.

The second complication is that the riverboat will be taking a second consignment of guns, along with rival gun runner Clay Pike (Lloyd Nolan) and his cohorts. Cash and Pike have hated each other for years so neither man is happy with this development.

There’s yet another complication - they have to deliver a Cuban revolutionary to Cuba as well. The revolutionary is the young and beautiful Doña Isabella (Rossana Podestà).

The riverboat has to run the gauntlet of Spanish gunboats and then when they reach the Cuban coast they run into yet another obstacle - a Spanish artillery position that they will have to find a way to neutralise.

As you might expect Cash Adams and Pike clash numerous times during the voyage, culminating in a couple of all-in fist-fights. Their clashes have something to do with their pasts but also quite a bit to do with the fact that they both take a shine to Doña Isabella.

And new obstacles just keep on appearing. The gun runners start to wonder just how much they’re going to have to go through to get their money, and whether they’ll live to collect it.

Alan Ladd is pretty good as Cash Adams, a somewhat tortured soul. He’s tortured by shame about the ignominious end to his military career. And while he claims that now he cares only about money we get the distinct impression that he’s not entirely comfortable with his new career as a gun runner. In fact we get the impression that he might be a man in search of redemption.

Lloyd Nolan is of course marvellous as the thoroughly amoral Pike. Rossana Podestà may have been a bit miscast here but she’s OK. Chill Wills is fun as the riverboat captain who seems to have spent the whole of an adventurous life on the losing side. I liked Paul Fix as Cash’s old army buddy Trasker.

Gordon Douglas directed. Douglas had a varied career which included some pretty interesting movies including a couple of very good private eye thrillers with Frank Sinatra (Tony Rome and The Lady in Cement), the spy spoof In Like Flint and the sci-fi classic Them! Martin Rackin wrote the screenplay (his other credits include the underrated noirish crime thriller A Dangerous Profession).

All the right ingredients are here. The story is pretty decent. The setting is unusual and interesting (even though we know that the crew never left the studio backlot). The two lead actors are very good. The film was shot widescreen and in Warnercolor and it looks terrific. So what went wrong? Well, to be honest not all that much did go wrong. It’s really not such a bad movie. Its poor reputation may stem from the perception that with all those desirable ingredients it should have been a classic adventure thriller when in fact it’s a merely competent one.

What’s interesting is that rather than idealists fighting for a good cause what we have here are bad men fighting (rather reluctantly) for a good cause.

The Warner Archive presentation is extremely good with a fine anamorphic transfer.

Santiago isn’t that bad. It doesn’t quite catch fire the way it should but it looks great. It’s worth seeing if you’re an Alan Ladd or a Lloyd Nolan fan. It’s not one of the adventure classics but it’s reasonable entertainment.

Friday, April 9, 2021

The Man in the White Suit (1951)

The Man in the White Suit, released in 1951, is one of the best-known of the Ealing comedies. It’s unusual in that it is also a science fiction film.

Sidney Stratton (Alec Guinness) is a brilliant young scientist with a special interest in textiles. He works in a textile mill. Well, he doesn’t exactly work there, he’s just bluffed his way into getting access to the mill’s laboratory. Everyone just assumes he’s one of the scientists working in the laboratory.

Now he’s made an amazing discovery. He has invented a new artificial fabric with some interesting properties. It never wears out and it never gets dirty. It actively repels dirt. Sidney believes it will revolutionise the textile industry and he’s convinced the owner of the mill, Mr Birnley (Cecil Parker) of that as well.

There is one small detail that Sidney and Mr Birnley have overlooked. A fabric that never wears out will not revolutionise the textile industry, it will destroy it. Nobody will ever need to replace their clothes. One suit could last a man for a lifetime.

It doesn’t take long for Birnley’s competitors, and the trade unions, to figure out just exactly how devastating Sidney’s invention will be. They decide that he must be stopped. They try to buy him off but it doesn’t work.

But somehow Sidney Stratton must be stopped.

Sidney is brilliant but he doesn’t really understand how the real world works. He is a dreamer. He really thinks his invention will be a boon for the whole world. He’s an interesting variation on the mad scientist. He’s not the slightest bit mad and he’s not the slightest bit evil. He’s just a brilliant innocent. Alec Guinness is marvellous in the rôle. He plays Sidney as a very likeable young man but there is something very subtly disturbing about him - he is a loveable eccentric but he’s an obsessive and his innocence is positively terrifying and causes mayhem.

There’s a great supporting cast - Cecil Parker as Birnley, Michael Gough as rival mill owner Michael Corland, Howard Marion-Crawford as another mill owner and Vida Hope as good-natured union activist Bertha. Joan Greenwood plays Birnley’s daughter who is in love with Corland but plays an important part in launching Sidney’s ill-fated career.

Alexander Mackendrick directed no less than five of the Ealing comedies, including the superb The Ladykillers. He then went to Hollywood where he directed Sweet Smell of Success. It’s now recognised as a truly great movie and one of the most impressive late entries in the American film noir cycle but at the time it bombed at the box office and pretty much ruined Mackendrick’s career. Mackendrick seemed to like making comedies with a bit of bite to them. This film confronts some important issues - progress is a good thing but it can come at a terrible price, sometimes the status quo really should be maintained, innocence can be more dangerous than cynicism, good intentions can lead to disaster. But The Man in the White Suit never falls into the trap of becoming preachy or didactic - it remains sparkling light-hearted fun.

This is a real science fiction film and it deals with some of the enduring themes of the genre - scientific progress as a two-edged sword, the dangers of worshipping science.

Like most of the Ealing comedies it’s visually impressive as well. The laboratory scenes are delightful, there’s a great chase scene at the end, there are numerous fine comic visual set-pieces. There’s also the characteristic Ealing mix of visual and verbal humour.

This is clever intelligent satirical filmmaking and it’s consistently funny. At times the comedy has an edge to it but it’s much too good-natured to be considered a black comedy. We can’t help liking Sidney but sometimes we just want to slap some sense into him.

Everything in The Man in the White Suit just works. Highly recommended.

Saturday, April 3, 2021

The Double (1963)

The Double is one of the British Merton Park Edgar Wallace crime thrillers, in this case dating from 1963.

John Cleeve (Alan MacNaughtan) is a middle-aged man with a past but he doesn’t know what that past is. He has no memories at all, apart from the fact that he murdered his business partner. Cleeve was found wandering in Nairobi. He is now in the care of pretty young nurse Jane Winston (Jane Griffiths) who is convinced that she can help him to recover his memories.

Apart from his amnesia John Cleeve is also unable to walk, although the doctors can’t explain why this should be so.

The odd thing is that not only has the body of the business partner he killed never been found, the police are not even entirely convinced that such a man ever existed.

Official records of Cleeve himself are rather sparse. He seems to have dropped completely out of sight for a long period. He does however have a criminal record for fraud. Private detectives have been hired to find out whether the business partner existed but have only been able to come up with one man who might fit the bill. Unfortunately, while Derreck Alwyn was in Africa at the right time he was not in the right part of Africa.

Derreck Alwyn (Basil Henson) is very much alive, a rising stockbroker and about to marry the very glamorous Selena Osmonde. When shown a photograph of Alwyn all Cleeve can say is that he might be the same man he was in business with but he can’t be completely sure.

Having nursed him for so long Jane Winston has grown rather attached to Cleeve. She can’t really believe he could ever have done anything really wrong. She also refuses to entertain the possibility that he might be faking his amnesia, or that he might have some dishonourable motive for doing so. He seems like such a nice man. Jane isn’t a fool but she’s a nice girl who likes to think the best about people.

Jane and her sister Mary (Jeanette Sterke) have cooked up a little scheme to uncover the truth about Derreck Alwyn. Mary will take a temporary position as Alwyn’s secretary. It’s a bit devious but if Alwyn actually has something to hide he’s not likely to admit it under direct questioning, and since there’s no evidence whatsoever that Alwyn has been involved in anything criminal the police would not have any grounds for questioning him.

Of course there is a mystery here and it’s going to get complicated. And dangerous.

Lionel Harris did quite a bit of work in television but this seems to be his one and only feature film directing credit. There’s nothing particularly wrong about the job he does here.

The screenplay is by Lindsay Galloway and John Roddick both of whom were mainly television writers. Both contributed to other films in the Merton Park Edgar Wallace cycle.

The cast doesn’t include any well-known names but they’re all the kinds of solid reliable performers who were in plentiful supply in Britain at the time.

The plot is decent enough although most of it becomes pretty clear by about the halfway stage. Somehow this one doesn’t quite have the tension or the intricate twists of the better movies in this series. There’s just something missing.

The Double is included in Network’s Edgar Wallace Mysteries Volume 5 DVD boxed set. The anamorphic transfer is excellent.

This is reasonably enjoyable undemanding fare. Even that these Network boxed sets are such outstanding value for money (seven movies plus a bonus movie and in this case the bonus movie The Man in the Back Seat is quite superb) one can’t really complain too much if one or two, such as The Double, are lesser efforts. And The Double is still worth a look if you’re buying the boxed set anyway.

Saturday, March 27, 2021

The October Man (1947)

The October Man is a 1947 British crime thriller with perhaps some very slight claims to being a film noir. Very slight indeed.

Jim Ackland (John Mills) suffered a fractured skull and brain injuries in a bus crash. A little girl, the daughter of friends of Jim’s, was killed in the crash. Jim was not in any way responsible, he wasn’t driving the bus and the crash was purely an accident anyway, but he feels vaguely and irrationally guilty.

His recovery is slow, not so much from the physical injuries as from the psychological shock. His recovery has been punctuated by a couple of suicide attempts. He’s now well enough to leave the hospital but he still gets headaches and he’s still a bit jumpy.

He has returned to London, hoping to resume his career as an industrial chemist, and has taken rooms in a reasonably comfortable and respectable hotel.

Things are gradually getting back to normal, he’s settling into his job and he’s met a rather charming young woman and romance is starting to blossom.

And then there’s a murder. The victim, a woman, was known to Jim. They really weren’t much more than acquaintances. Jim has no alibi and there is some circumstantial evidence that points to him. The police get very excited when they discover that Jim had been in a mental hospital. The evidence against him really is absurdly slim but the police want to make an arrest and he seems like a good prospect. There are other very plausible suspects but why bother following up other leads when you already have a perfectly good suspect?

Jim really has more or less recovered but now he’s under extreme stress and everybody seems convinced that he’s guilty.

Joan Greenwood is good as Jim’s girlfriend Jenny and there are some fine performances by the supporting players with Felix Aylmer being wonderful as always as Jim’s doctor.

But the movie belongs to John Mills. John Mills is not the first name that would spring to mind if someone raised the subject of British film noir but he did make a number of somewhat dark crime movies that do hold some interest for noir fans - The Long Memory (1953), Vicious Circle (1957) and Mr Denning Drives North (1952) being notable examples. There’s also the extremely interesting 1937 proto-noir The Green Cockatoo.

Mills was surprisingly effective in complex darker rôles and he gives an excellent and rather subtle performance here. He resists the temptation to overdo Jim’s jumpiness and confusion.

Any movie with an Eric Ambler connection is also likely to be worth checking out if you’re a film noir fan. In this case the movie was not only based on an Ambler novel, Ambler produced the film and wrote the screenplay as well.

There are only three likely suspects, including Jim (given his mental state he’s not certain that he’s not the murderer and the viewer can’t be entirely certain either), but the mystery and the suspense are well maintained. The other wild card of course is that we know that Jim has been suicidal in the past, so whether he’s guilty or not and whether he’s arrested or not he might try suicide again so that adds further suspense as the pressure mounts on him.

The October Man
is also noteworthy for being Roy Ward Baker’s first film as a director (and he does an excellent job). It’s also worth pointing out that both Roy Ward Baker and Eric Ambler’s wife had worked with Hitchcock.

Kino Lorber have included The October Man in the first of their five-film British Noir boxed sets. The transfer is quite acceptable. It’s fullframe of course (which is quite correct). The film was shot in black-and-white.

The October Man might not be authentically noir (although at times it does have a noirish look) but it’s a fine mystery/suspense film. To be honest the script isn’t that dazzling and the success of the film is mainly due to Roy Ward Baker’s stylish handling of the material and the terrific performance of John Mills. Highly recommended.

Sunday, March 21, 2021

Manuela (1957)

Manuela (released in the US as Stowaway Girl) is an odd little 1957 British film, directed by Guy Hamilton, that is a kind of unconventional romance and maritime adventure drama combined. It also has an extremely interesting cast - Trevor Howard, Donald Pleasence, Elsa Martinelli, Pedro Armendáriz and Warren Mitchell (plus Roger Delgado in a very small rôle).


James Prothero (Trevor Howards) is the captain of the tramp steamer Conway Castle. He’s bad-tempered and he drinks too much and he’s been too long at sea. He’s also, although he has never admitted to himself, an incurable romantic.

The Conway Castle has to put in to the small South American port of San Luis. The crew have to bury their chief engineer. Finding a properly qualified replacement in San Luis is impossible so, with some misgivings, he promotes Mario Contanza (Pedro Armendáriz) to the post.

In San Luis he unwittingly picks up a stowaway, the beautiful fiery 17-year-old Manuela (Elsa Martinelli).

She is smuggled aboard by Constanza, who has his own ideas as to how she’s going to repay him. Manuela has no intentions of becoming Mario’s mistress but she is desperate to get to England. Her father was an Englishman, from Windsor. They have castles in Windsor and Manuela, who knows nothing about England, has all kinds of romantic girlish notions about what her life in England will be like. In any case she has very good reasons for wanting to leave San Luis.

Constanza smuggles Manuela aboard as a cabin boy. You won’t be surprised to hear that trying to pass off Elsa Martinelli as a boy is a deception that works successfully for about five minutes.

As you might expect Captain Prothero does not react well when he discovers Manuela’s presence aboard his ship. He decides to put both Manuela and Constanza ashore. Manuela responds by throwing herself overboard.

This is where Prothero’s latent romanticism kicks in. When Manuela is fished out of the water he suddenly softens. In fact he falls in love with her. And she falls in love with him.

But disaster is about to strike the Conway Castle. There is a slow fire in one of the cargo holds. Saving the ship is now the first priority. And, for Captain Prothero, perhaps saving himself from an existence that has become dissatisfying to him. He has had a glimpse of another life he could lead, another destination for which to head. He has a duty to his crew but now he finds himself thinking he has a duty to himself and to Manuela. The problem is that these duties my be mutually irreconcilable.

Trevor Howard was perfect for rôles such as this - a character who could be an obvious cliché but he adds multiple layers of emotional depth. Elsa Martinelli is utterly charming. Donald Pleasence is excellent as the ship’s First Officer, a devout Christian who is utterly devoted to his job and to his ship. And while he and Captain Prothero are wildly incompatible personalities there’s a grudging respect between the two men. Pedro Armendáriz overacts outrageously but delightfully as the passionate but unpredictable Constanza.

Guy Hamilton made some remarkably interesting movies in the 50s and 60s. There was a lot more to his career than the Bond movies. The Intruder and The Ringer are both worth seeing.

Network’s excellent DVD release includes an alternate ending. Almost everybody prefers the standard ending but they’re both reasonably satisfying in their own ways.

The surprisingly effective chemistry between Trevor Howard and Elsa Martinelli (and the fine performances they both give) makes this film work. There’s plenty of suspense when the ship is endangered but it’s basically a character study, and a sophisticated and subtle one. Very highly recommended.

I bought this movie based on a glowing review at Riding the High Country.

It’s interesting to compare this film with Sea Wife, another odd British romance/maritime adventure drama made in the same year. Manuela is by far the better film but Sea Wife is interesting in its own way.

Tuesday, March 16, 2021

The Ringer (1952)

The Ringer is a 1952 British crime thriller directed by Guy Hamilton (in fact is was his first directing assignment) and based on one of Edgar Wallace’s more celebrated potboilers.

The Ringer is a master criminal who had been on the run from the police of various nations until his untimely death in Australia. Now Scotland Yard has reason to believe that the Ringer is alive and is in London. They’re hoping that a small-time burglar named Sam (William Hartnell) can help them to track him down, Sam is one of the few people who has seen the Ringer face-to-face and lived to tell the tale (the Ringer is known to be a master of disguise). Sam is not keen on the idea of helping the Yard but he’s not given much of a choice.

One of the reasons the police are convinced the Ringer is back is that his glamorous wife, Cora Ann (Greta Gynt), has suddenly turned up in London.

Oddly enough Scotland Yard knows the Ringer’s name. It’s Arthur Milton. But this doesn’t help them since they have no idea what he looks like.

The return of the Ringer is a matter of some concern to a very successful although perhaps not very ethical lawyer named Meister (played by Herbert Lom). He was supposed to be looking after the Ringer’s sister but she unfortunately killed herself. At Scotland Yard it is surmised that the Ringer might therefore feel he has a score to settle with the lawyer. Meister is also inclined to think that this might be a possibility.

Scotland Yard are taking the matter very seriously. Meister is given police protection. The Superintendent in charge of the case is being assisted by a professional criminologist, Dr Lomond (Donald Wolfit). Meister’s home is turned into a kind of fortress, under Sam’s supervision (being a professional burglar he is something of an expert on security).

Meister’s secretary is a young Austrian woman named Lisa (Mai Zetterling). Lisa has had some misunderstanding with the British authorities over her visa but Meister has sorted these problems out for her. Meister is very kind to Lisa and is very fond of her, in a fatherly affection sort of way. Or perhaps his affection is a little more than fatherly? Perhaps his affections for the Ringer’s sister were a little more than fatherly as well. That, and the sister’s suicide, might explain why the Ringer has a grudge against Meister. Lisa has been patiently waiting for her fiancé Johnny (played by a very young Denholm Elliott) to be released from prison.

Now Johnny is out and they can be married, much to the delight of all although Meister’s joy at the news of Johnny’s release seems a little forced.

The suspense slowly builds. Meister is under siege is in his own home. He knows, and everybody knows, that the Ringer will strike eventually. The only question is when. And of course how.

It’s not very difficult to guess the Ringer’s identity but that just increases the suspense - how on earth is he going to kill Meister when Meister isn’t leaving his house and the house is crawling with coppers? We know that the Ringer is not the sort of criminal who commits a crime unless he is certain he can get away with it, which in this case seems like an impossibility.

It’s difficult to make a bad movie based on an Edgar Wallace thriller. His books were just so perfectly suited to film adaptation. Guy Hamilton may have been a novice director but he was a very talented novice director and both he and experienced screenwriter Val Valentine know what they’re doing.

And of course the film has Herbert Lom, always a very big plus. Meister is smooth, charming, clever, calculating and sinister - the sort of rôle Lom always relished. And he’s in top form here. William Hartnell is great fun as the likeable cockney thief Sam. The whole cast is very solid but Lom and Hartnell are the standouts.

It was based on a play but Hamilton manages to avoid a stodgy stagebound feel even though most of the action takes place on just a couple of sets.

This is a movie that could not possibly have been made in the US in 1952 - it would have fallen foul of the Production Code on numerous counts.

Network’s Region 2 DVD offers a very handsome transfer. The movie is in black-and-white and is in the correct 4:3 aspect ratio.

The Ringer is wickedly delightful. It’s witty and clever, it has a great cast and a great performance by Herbert Lom. Very highly recommended.

Thursday, March 11, 2021

Chu Chin Chow (1934)

Chu Chin Chow is a strange but captivating 1934 British musical based (loosely) on the Arabian Nights tale of Ali Baba and the Forty Thieves.

At first it looks like it’s going to stick quite closely to the original tale. And to a surprising extent it does just that.  There are two brothers, one very rich and one very poor. Poor but honest. Well actually he’s not honest at all, which makes things more fun. Kasim Baba (Lawrence Hanray) is the rich brother. Ali Baba (George Robey) is the poor brother. At least he’s poor until he stumbles upon the treasure cave of the notorious bandit Abu Hasan (Fritz Kortner). He is lucky enough to overhear the magic password “Open, O Sesame” and once inside the cave he helps himself to a fabulous fortune.

Ali Baba is now an extremely wealthy man. Kasim of course is determined to trick the secret out of him.

The script (based on a very very popular 1916 stage production) adds quite a few elements to the original story. Kasim’s wife owns a beautiful slave girl named Zahrat (Anna May Wong) but it soon transpires that Zahrat is not a nice girl at all. She’s a spy for the aforementioned bloodthirsty brigand Abu Hasan. Abu Hasan and Zahrat have a plan - Abu Hasan’s men are going to rob the rich caravan of the Chinese merchant Chu Chin Chow which is on its way to Baghdad. Much slaughter follows. This is what you might call a rather blood-drenched musical!

Abu Hasan disguises himself as Chu Chin Chow (who is to be Kasim Baba’s guest) so that he and his bandits can rob the slave bazaar at Baghdad. Zahrat is to be sold at auction and her sale will be the signal for the bandits to go into action.

Marjanah has discovered the fiendish plot but can she do anything to prevent the mayhem?

Anna May Wong gets star billing but this seems to have largely a result of her short-lived fame as a Hollywood star. Her part is actually a supporting part and she has few opportunities to do anything other than look glamorous (mind you, looking glamorous is something she did extremely well). Her performance does pick up a bit towards the end when Zahrat acquires a new motivation.

The real female lead is Pearl Argyle as slave girl Marjanah, who is in love with Ali Baba’s son Nur-al-Din Baba (John Garrick). George Robey plays Ali Baba almost purely for laughs. He goes outrageously over-the-top (he was a very famous music hall performer) but mostly this works. On the whole the cast is fairly competent. Fritz Kortner is a wonderfully melodramatic villain. It’s hard to say which of the two, Robey or Kortner, is the more outrageous.

This is a movie that is not quite sure if it’s a lighthearted romance, an exotic musical, an action-adventure film or an orgy of bloodshed.

In some ways of course this makes it closer in spirit to the original tale from the Arabian Nights (in which the stories mixed romance, comedy, adventure, sex and violence).

There’s at least one very impressive musical production number in which a magician performs an array of spectacular tricks with water fountains. The number even includes water fountain juggling. You do have to remember that this was a 1916 stage musical so the music is quite different from what you get in 1930s Hollywood musicals - it’s more in the operetta style.

This was an immensely expensive production. Not just by the standards of the British film industry in the 1930s - even by Hollywood standards it would have been a very big-budget film. Some sources say the budget was half a million pounds which would have been at least a couple of million US dollars. A lot of money in 1934. Ernö Metzner’s art direction is very impressive and obviously influenced by German Expressionism (not surprising since he got his start in the German film industry in the 1920s). The sets are lavish, the costumes are extravagant. The musical set-pieces are on an epic scale.

I saw this movie on the strength of the review at Michael’s Moviepalace.

The Special Edition DVD from VCI is quite a surprise - it’s a three disc set which includes the original British cut, the recut American release (entitled Ali Baba Nights) and a complete bonus feature film (Abdul the Damned, a British 1935 historical melodrama which I’ve wanted to see for years) plus there’s even an audio commentary. In fact everything but the kitchen sink.

Chu Chin Chow is a movie oddity but I like movie oddities. It’s a movie that is excessive and totally unlike any other musical I’ve ever seen. It’s not just odd - it’s very entertaining in its own distinctive way and it’s visually stunning with lots of Expressionist touches. Highly recommended.